Pride and Prayer (Trinity III sermon)

T03 - Lost Sheep - Henry Ossawa Tanner

1 Peter 5:5b-11       St. Luke 15:1-11


Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another…

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God
so that at the proper time he may exalt you


In the next 7 weeks, our readings focus us on basic Christian psychology and the beginnings of growth into maturity.  To begin with, we should all become familiar with our passions.

​The word "passions" comes up in the Bible in many places in the New Testament (see, for example from different Apostles: Paul: Galatians 5:24 and 2 Tim 3:6; James 4:1; 1 Peter 2:11; Jude 1:18).  (Dutch: “hartstochten”  Herziene Statenvertaling) Passions are thoughts, feelings and desires that come upon us - we don't choose them, we receive them - we are passive in the experience.  Thoughts of pride or vanity, or strong emotions related to fear such as withdrawal, whether physically or emotionally, or fighting back such as anger, a state of boredom where we feel no desire only resentment, and the desires for material possessions, for food and drink, and sexual desire – all of these are passions of the soul.

To be human is to have passions.  These thoughts, and feelings and desires are given to us for a purpose – to navigate life on earth and to love God and our neighbour.  Our growth in love, our sanctification, in Scripture and in the teaching of the Church both in the Eastern Orthodox and Western Traditions, has not been about denying or trying to kill our passions, but to understand them, and with the grace of God, to transform them, so that we become more human like Jesus Christ.

The readings today are related to the passion of pride.  The passion of pride is always seen in Scripture, and in the writings of the Fathers, to be potentially the worst and most destructive passion, and the one that leads to all of the other passions.  It should be dealt with first, or there is no point to trying to grow in other areas.  Growth in virtue, without dealing with pride, would only increase our pride.

Maybe you noticed in the conclusion of the book of Job in our daily readings – that at the end, God challenges Job – to have the power that God has, to “look on everyone that is proud and bring him low.”  He describes how he created the monster Leviathan as “king over all the sons of pride.”  To bring them low.

What is pride?  We all know the experience of meeting a very arrogant person – it is unpleasant to be around him.  That pride makes no place for us, our engaging with him only increases his pride, we want to flee.  That’s an obvious example.  But pride is much more subtle and much more pervasive in humanity and in our own soul.  We suffer from pride when we have no thought of God, whenever we are not referring our actions to God, when we are totally engaged in the world without a view to the transcendent.

It is something that can only happen in our minds, because it is actually not possible in reality: it is to separate ourselves from the living God and to go off on our own, without any reference to the living God. It is to put ourselves in the place of God.

In the two parables today, Jesus speaks of a sheep that has wandered off on its own, and of a coin that has been lost.  In both cases there is not some great wickedness in the part of the sheep that is lost or willfulness in the coin that rolls away, it is almost as if it is just the circumstances of life that leads to this falling away.  If you had a scientific background, you could say it is a kind of entropy.  Drop some marbles on the floor and some will stay together and some will scatter far.  Light incense at the front of the church and in time you will smell it all the way at the back.

The sheep, that is lost, was searching for more green grass, and just a bit more green grass, and went over a ridge into another valley with nose to the ground, and then suddenly could no longer hear the other sheep bleating, and could not find its way back.  The shepherd has to go out and get that sheep back.  And this is a parable about the experience of each of us – if we get too engrossed in what is in front of us, even good things like attending to family, or work or entertainment, and bit by bit forgetting the Source of our life and its higher ends.  It will not go so well for us, in fact worse and worse – because there comes a meaninglessness, and then a kind of desperation, in trying to satisfy our higher purposes with earthly ends alone.

In the parable, Jesus shows himself to be the Good Shepherd, attending first to the ones most needful – the ones on the edge, or who’ve gone over the edge.  God’s grace seeks out the lost and brings them home and there is joy in heaven!  In the second parable is of the woman who seeks out the lost coin.  The early Church Fathers suggest that the woman is a figure of the Church, who, lighting the lamp of God, that is, preaching God’s Word, seeks out the lost coin, inscribed with the image of God, the beloved coin entrusted to her care, until she finds it – and she rejoices when it is found.

So I think the point here is not to get really down on others or ourselves who wander away or roll away, but to attend to them and ourselves, remembering God loves every human being and would bring us all back to enjoy fellowship in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus would engage us in this task (like the woman with the lamp).

Why does the sheep wander off or the coin roll away?  We have in us an insatiable curiosity, and this is a good thing, and we also have planted within us a desire for greatness.  We are made in the image and likeness of God, that means we have a desire for greatness, because God is great!  Some of us were watching the Lord of the Rings last night and wondering what it is that we enjoy about the film – one thing is that everyone has a longing to do something great, to be part of an epic journey that leads to changes in ourselves – growth in courage and in maturity – and helping the wider world.

The Apostles knew this desire for greatness – they argued with one another while they were walking with Jesus to Jerusalem about who would be greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.  Jesus did not attack their desire to be great, but said, if you would be great, you must be the servant of all.  Magnanimity, greatness of soul, is seen as a good thing.  The humble Blessed Virgin Mary rejoices and shouts when she realizes something of the significance of what is happening to her as she carried the Christ child.  She cries out, “He that is mighty has magnified me, and holy is His name!”  “All generations shall call me blessed!”  And God desires to magnify each one of us and to make us saints also!  That’s why he came in the flesh in Jesus Christ.

In our first reading today, Peter tells us that God will make us great in time.  But what comes before being exalted is humbling ourselves under God.

“Humble yourselves…under the mighty hand of God so that in the proper time he may exalt you…

And just as we can practice loving our neighbour to reveal our love for God (Trinity 1) so can we practice humility before God by being humble before one another:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility towards one another, ‘for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Don’t kill your desire for greatness, by a kind of false humility.  To press your nose into the ground would be to deny your goodness.  But simply acknowledge your need for God.

We are complicated people – unknown even to ourselves.  And the simplest and a very practical way to show even to our own soul that we are acknowledging God… is to pray.  As soon as we lift up our mind to God, we are putting ourselves under God, instead of in place of God.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God…casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  Be sober-minded; be watchful.

Our ups and downs in our life, can be navigated, given some stability and direction, when we anchor ourselves in prayer to the Rock that is Christ.  And in that disposition of asking, we become open to God’s grace.

Different people find different ways of practising this idea of humbling ourselves continually under the mighty hand of God:

  • An excellent practice for humbling ourselves is to rest each week on Sundays or another Sabbath day, to look up and pray.  Others can help us in this discipline– that’s one reason we gather together.
  • Regular, even a daily pattern of prayer, is key to keeping us looking up – it is so easy for our souls to wander off.
  • Some use simple prayers that can be used anywhere, when you are in bed, or on a walk, or in a quiet corner of your house – the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, your own prayers, to recollect us before God.
  • You can have pictures in your house or car – images of Christ or the saints, to remind you to look up.
  • I know some evangelicals who play worship songs non-stop in their homes and cars – it is the same thing as saying the Jesus prayer, really, or having images, it is a kind of continual reminder, a continual praying.

All of this is about humbling ourselves – moment by moment – under the mighty hand of God, and waiting for him in due time to exalt us more fully into the life of heaven, the Kingdom of God.  Watching for his grace so that we can respond to it.

Peter warns us not to be naïve, that in the spiritual life, it is not just a kind of entropy that leads us away, there are active malevolent spiritual forces that are seeking in every way to hold us back from simply looking up to God.

Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  Resist him, firm in your faith…

This process of sanctification, of being less and less proud, is a real suffering.  It is not easy to be faithful in prayer, at least at the start.  But it is to allow God to carry us on His back into the fold, into His kingdom, into Love.  It is giving up our tight control… but it is gaining true freedom.  It is to look up and say, in every circumstance, “Jesus, have mercy on me.”  Peter says,

Caste all your anxieties on God, because he cares for you.

Let us now prepare ourselves for Holy Communion – this involves a humbling of ourselves – both acknowledging our brokenness (repentance), and our need of help (we cannot see or enter the kingdom of God on our own), and then trusting in the goodness of God to offer his mercy and his grace.

Amen +

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